UK's pro-Brexit campaign broke election laws

By On July 17, 2018

UK's pro-Brexit campaign broke election laws


Then-London Mayor Boris Johnson speaks at a Vote Leave rally in Newcastle, England, April 16, 2016.

LONDON -- The official campaign group that succeeded in convincing Britons to vote to leave the European Union has been fined and referred to police by the country's Electoral Commission for breaking election laws during the 2016 campaign. The Commission fined the Vote Leave group almost $90,000 for exceeding the spending limit imposed by U.K. election laws, allegedly by funnelling additional money through a second pro-Brexit youth group, BeLeave.

According to a statement on the Commission's website, their investigation "found significant evidence of joint working between the lead campaigner, Vot e Leave and another campaign group BeLeave. Evidence shows that BeLeave spent more than £675,000 with Aggregate IQ under a common plan with Vote Leave. This spending should have been declared by Vote Leave. It means Vote Leave exceeded its legal spending limit of £7 million by almost £500,000."

BeLeave founder Darren Grimes was hit with a separate fine of £20,000 (about $26,000) and reported to police, as was David Halsall of Vote Leave.

Vote Leave issued a statement on Tuesday declaring the Electoral Commission's report "wholly inaccurate" and politically motivated.

Brexit and the government's plan for how to make it a reality continue to divide Britain less than a year before EU rules should force the United Kingdom out of the union -- regardless of whether a negotiated exit plan has been reached between London and Brussels.

Prime Minster Theresa May inherited the monumental task of negotiating an exit deal with the EU when sh e took over from predecessor David Cameron, who initiated the referendum in a bid to gain political clout, stepped down. Last week, senior members of May's cabinet walked out over disagreements on what Brexit should look like.

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May's government issued a proposal just days ago for what has been dubbed a "soft" Brexit; a deal which would see the U.K. remain close to the EU for the purposes of trade and immigration.

That is not what the 51.9 percent of Britons who voted to leave the EU had in mind, argue many members of May's own Conservative Party -- including Brexit frontman Boris Johnson, who resigned from his senior role as May's Foreign Secretary last week.

May's government, acting on the referendum mandate to pull Britain out of the EU, gave the union formal notification of the withdrawal last year, starting a two-year countdown as stipulate d by EU law. On March 29 at exactly midnight Brussels time, Britain will be out.

Unless it's not.

Nothing about the withdrawal process is certain. There is no precedent for it. Some in the United Kingdom who never wanted out of the EU have been quick to use the Vote Leave campaign's legal woes to bolster their argument that a new referendum should be held.

Senior Labour Party lawmaker Lord Adonis told the BBC on Tuesday that the Electoral Commission's report should prompt a "complete banning" of all those implicated in the Vote Leave violations and a new public vote on the decision to leave the EU.

Vote Leave has been adamant in its rejection of Electoral Commission's report, accusing the group of being motivated by "a political agenda."

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"It is astonishing that nobody from Vote Leave has been interviewed by the commission in the production of this report, nor indeed at any point in the past two years," the group said in a statement.

Electoral Commission chief executive Claire Basset told the BBC, however, that nobody was interviewed because Vote Leave refused to comply with repeated requests.

"I'm disappointed that nobody from Vote Leave was interviewed, too. We asked them five times over the period of five months to provide somebody to interview and they did not," Basset told the BBC on Tuesday. She flatly rejected any notion that the Commission or its investigation into the Vote Leave campaign was biased.

Public opinion polls do show a statistical reversal in the majority attitudes two years after the referendum, with most saying they now favor remaining in the European Union. But it is a very slim margin, and the same opinion polls wrongly predicted the Remain camp would win the 2016 referendum.

Senior European Union officials have said publicly that should Britain change its mind, before or after the March 2019 deadline, they would be happy to welcome the Brits back into the fold.

© 2018 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.
  • Tucker Reals

    Tucker Reals is the foreign editor, based a t the CBS News London bureau.

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